Thursday, November 05, 2009


Steve Harris, former communications director of General Motors, was one of five featured panelists at the Council of PR Firms’ October 29 Critical Issues Forum program: “Aftershock: Rebuilding Trust and Confidence in 2010. “ Steve made some salient points about GM, both pre- and post-bankruptcy, which I’ve paraphrased below:

• The recent economic crisis was just the culmination of years and years of GM’s audiences’ diminished trust in the company, largely related to product quality issues. But other auto companies here were equally as guilty. The lack of company concern was obvious. So it will take time to regain that trust — perhaps years and years.

• Yet GM doesn’t have a lot of time to change attitudes, perhaps no more than a couple of years. The most effective way to change perceptions would be by building more compelling products. The CEO of GM also needs to embrace the social media, and that will help reach people more consistently and rapidly.

• GM must also play a bigger role in personal outreach to further build trust. The company needs live encounters, and they actually have begun to have some meetings with some of their adversaries — approximately 100 so far. You cannot rely on technology alone, as effective as it is. In fact, it is as labor intensive to use social media as it is to do personal outreach, particularly when it comes to prolonged conversation.

• GM has to find common ground between itself and its various constituencies. To do that the company is cultivating third parties to speak on its behalf and with various audiences. According to Harris, the company has already identified 15,000 people to do just that.

• The crisis has indeed raised PR’s influence in the company, but it has also raised the risk level; that is, the accountability of communications is now on a higher plain.

“Aftershock” moderator Len Schlesinger — President of Babson College, former COO of Limited Brands and a professor at Harvard Business School for 20 years — summed up the observations of the various panelists by describing the three levels of engagement their work encompassed: virtual (the internet), physical (in person) and mental (engagement with ideas).

It appears that GM is using all three and will continue to dialogue, listen and solicit feedback, thereby gradually resuming , we hope, its former esteemed position in the marketplace.


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